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Chardonnay's big do-over



The band looked rumpled, smelly, like they all had bad breath. The song was monotonous. And though I could sense my parents' bewilderment as the remote hovered over Friday Night Videos, I was at a loss to explain why the reluctant spokesman for my generation felt stupid—and contagious.

It was 1991, the beginning of a decade's worth of pop culture that totally missed me.

Apparently, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" was our anthem, encapsulating our rage and ushering in an era of flannel, piercings and purposefully unkempt hair. Try as I did, I failed to understand the spell grunge cast over my fellow 20-somethings. Neither did I comprehend what made Friends must-see TV, why Mortal Kombat rocked or, worst of all, the pervasive popularity of oaked California chardonnay.

It reigned supreme among white wine at weddings, awards banquets and on by-the-glass lists in the last decade of the 20th century. With a sharp nose and a heavy, buttery finish that left an almost unctuous feeling in the mouth, the cheap California chardonnay of the 1990s marred a generation's understanding of white wine, myself included.

America then was in the throes of a California chardonnay surge. The grape, which the French have long rendered into beautiful wines in Chablis, Burgundy and Champagne, was growing like a weed in California by the turn of the 21st century. Vineyard owners planted tens of thousands of acres. Winemakers found shortcuts to impart oak flavor that helped cut the costs of barrel aging. We were awash in the stuff. To be fair, plenty of California's oaked chardonnay was—and still is—great. Most of that was out of my price range, however.

In the early '90s, I was holding down my first full-time reporting job, living alone and learning to cook for myself on a three-burner electric stove in a kitchen no larger than my closet is today. Eager to leave behind the light beer of my college years, I looked at mastering wine pairings as a crucial step to full-fledged adulthood.

Red wine was easy. There was plenty I liked. But the white wine selection, especially in small-town North Carolina, was horrible, inevitably leading to the wood and cream of oaked chard. I could find little food that suited it. For years, I gave up on white wines entirely. We all did. Pictures from the late '90s show my friends and I holding blood-tinted orbs on stems, giant balloon glasses filled with cabernet sauvignon and merlot, nary a white in sight.

Then, sometime in the past decade or so, while I was busy becoming a homeowner, a wife, a mother, a member of the 99 percent, I found that I had fallen in love with whites. Pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc, dry Rieslings, vinho verde are all among my favorites. Just not chardonnay. Never chardonnay.

So it was with some sheepishness that I picked up a bottle of Simply Naked Unoaked 2010 California Chardonnay ($7.99 on sale) from the grocery store cooler a few months ago. I felt a little like I was looking at pictures of an old boyfriend, one with whom things had ended badly. Maybe we could try again, I thought.

Here's to second chances. The Simply Naked is bright and crisp, with none of the acridness I usually associate with California chardonnay. It tastes likes apples with finishing notes of vanilla. It feels light in the mouth, but sturdier than the pinot grigios and sauvignon blancs I'm used to.

As it turns out, naked is huge. The Simply Naked brand, which also offers pinot grigio, merlot and cabernet sauvignon in unadorned styles, has moved close to 200,000 cases since it was launched last year. Other California wine labels, including Four Vines and the ever-popular Big House, are seeing big numbers in naked chardonnays, too, fueled in part by the preferences of Gen X and the Millennials for spare, fruit-forward wines. It seems I wasn't alone in my oaked chardonnay discontent after all. It just took some time for my generation to make itself heard.

Who knew I could open my heart to chardonnay again after all these years? Maybe I'll go dig out my husband's copy of Nevermind and give it one more try.

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